NUMBER 799 • 03 AUGUST • EDUCATIONAL ENVIRONMENTS IN CARE
Existing research into the educational environment of children’s homes has suggested that units lack books and other educational materials and are somewhat dull places in which to live (Berridge 1985; Berridge et al. 1997; Jackson 1989). This was certainly true of the majority of the adolescent homes we visited. Even where the decoration and furnishings were pleasant, there was often very little to do. We consistently recorded an absence of books and magazines. In three homes we found copies of the excellent Who Cares? magazine for children in care, but these frequently lay in the office. In one home staff refused to give it to the young people on the grounds that “they would only rip it up”. One 17-year-old girl said to the researcher, in a moment of particular boredom: “You know what I’d really love right now? A colouring book”. In this respect homes for younger children, one short breaks home and some private homes performed distinctly better and we found a reasonable number of attractive up-to-date books as well as an assortment of educational games. However, few materials relating to minority ethnic groups were available, with the exception of the Borough home where black images and minority cultures were more in evidence. Staff also read bedtime stories to younger children. In one private home a ten-year-old was keen to show the researcher his drawing of a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and talked enthusiastically with his keyworker about the chapter they were due to read that night.
Only two homes, one in South and one private home, received a daily newspaper. It was noticeable, however, that when researchers bought newspapers and left these around a home, they were read by young people and interest was expressed in various news items. Television news broadcasts were equally rarely watched, all of which added to the sense of “social disconnectedness” raised earlier. This seemed to represent another form of institutionalisation, perhaps made more insidious by virtue of its unconscious nature.
Somewhat to our surprise, television was watched quite rarely in the majority of the homes. Indeed, children often seemed to have little enthusiasm for the medium and viewing was more often directed by the preferences of staff than young people. Videos were rather more popular, with Disney films favourites for both adolescents and younger children. In one adolescent home this led to the rather bizarre evening programme of Silence of the Lambs followed by Snow White, symbolising perhaps the contradictory characteristics and unmet needs of these adolescents. Seldom was television used strategically, for example to help promote adult — child interaction, calm children before bedtime or to diffuse a tense situation. There was also little encouragement to watch programmes of educational value.
Overall, however, staff tried to encourage young people who were attending school and, for example, children were usually asked how they had enjoyed their day. Homework was also usually checked and staff tried to be sensitive to the situation of young people who were irregular attenders. In some cases strenuous efforts were made to encourage attendance — on one occasion bribery, in the form of a new pair of boots, was exercised. Yet many opportunities to enhance children’s education were lost and practice frequently varied among staff. As has already been noted, facilities for homework were sometimes unsatisfactory. The fact that the majority of children had their own bedrooms meant that young people usually had a quiet space; on the other hand, tables on which to work were more often to be found in communal areas.
DAVID BERRIDGE and ISABELLE BRODIE
Berridge, D. and Brodie, I. (1998) Children's Homes Revisited. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd. pp 110-111